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As social scientists, we have a responsibility to use our research to make positive changes in society—that’s why “Impactful Work” remains one of FMG’s core values. Our commitment to impactful work is an important part of how we conduct and report research. Even beyond promoting greater social conscientiousness and reducing bias, appropriate reporting is a matter of scientific accuracy. The goal of science is to explain and describe the natural world, and our language should reflect the world as it is. Language holds a great deal of power in society, and as social scientists, it is imperative that we consider the language we use when we conduct research and discuss its results. 

What Are Labels and Identities?

Understanding the difference between labels and identities is an important first step to ensuring that research responsibly represents social groups. Labels are used to identify characteristics operationally defined by researchers and are primarily used for classification and categorization of individuals in survey efforts. By comparison, identities are how individuals define themselves and are internalized, self-designated expressions. It’s true that labels can be identities, where individuals can define themselves by characteristics also identified as operational labels. However, it’s critical that researchers don’t assume that individuals define themselves by the labels that scientists assign them. When conducting research, it is important to acknowledge the agency and independence of your participants—that they are people and not just data points.  

Three Best Practices When Using Labels in Research

  1. Be as specific as possible. Labels should be defined by the most specific relevant characteristics and depends upon the scope and purpose of the research project. 
    • Example: If a study is investigating gender differences, instead of merely saying “sexual and gender minorities,” researchers should more specifically refer to identities studied such as asexual individuals, gender non-conforming individuals, or transgender men. However, if the scope of the project is more high level or focuses on other areas, then individually describing gender identities may not be as necessary or appropriate. 
  2. Use person-centric language. When discussing participants, researchers should strive to use person-focused language as opposed to label-focused language. It is further important to note that labels are adjectives describing a group of individuals and not nouns. Again, this respects the individuality of participants. 
    • Example: Rather than “disabled individuals,” more appropriate language would be “individuals with disabilities.” Researchers should also be careful not to use euphemisms or diminutive language such as “handicapable” when using labels of social groups, especially those with a history of stigma and discrimination. 
  3. Refrain from using labels as nouns. Labels are adjectives describing categories and should not be used as nouns to refer to the individuals in the category.
    • Example: Wording like “Blacks,” “females,” or “homosexuals” is inappropriate. Instead, you should use phrasing such as “Black Americans,” “female recruits,” or “homosexual women.”

At FMG, we believe that social scientists have a responsibility to be conscious of the language we use in our research reports, as these reports can have far-reaching implications. By using specific, person-centric language, scientists can share their important research, while reducing their bias and best representing the individuals they are studying. Social research can have enormous effects on society and, when used effectively and appropriately, greatly benefits groups that have been traditionally marginalized. 

To understand more about our commitment to socially conscious research and business practices, read more about FMG’s status as a B Corp.

About the author

Drew Parton

Drew is a member of Fors Marsh Group’s (FMG) Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) committee and has been at FMG since July 2018. He has more than five years of social science research experience in both academic and applied areas. Drew’s prior research includes morality, social cognition, and aggression. He has been involved in initiatives on improving research practices and social responsibility in science. As part of FMG’s Military Recruiting Research team, Drew studies attitudes and perceptions of the U.S. Military as well as youths’ career consideration processes.

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